Three days, ten shows, wonder, puzzlement, nostalgia, blinked-back tears and a few drunks. I’m on the train back from my annual pilgrimage to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
First up after arrival: Phil Nichol doing an hour of comedy at the Assembly Rooms Sunday night. Phil Nichol Rants! I have seen Phil Nichol mesmerize, delight, teach and connect with audiences. On Sunday though he mostly insulted Americans generally and specifically insulted my American friend sitting next to me at her first ever Fringe show. There was more American bashing than any other year at the Fringe. So FYI America: you are not welcomed as liberators now. You are scorned as oppressors. It may be worth considering whether they have a point.
I consider this with some frequency. This summer my son has been insulted with some regularity for being half American. The local kids have learned from their parents that Americans are stupid, annoying people who solve their problems with guns. "Americans are stupid people who shoot each other with guns when they have problems." That's what my son heard every day. FYI.
But really this insult lacks integrity, right? I mean, if I - clearly an American - really solved my problems with guns, then wouldn't they not want to make themselves a problem? I guess I am just saying we lose either way.
Phil Nichol had some good moments, I’m sure his new play with David Florez, Intervention, will be very good.
The next morning we jumped into Female Gothic. The actor, Rebecca Vaughn told three tales of horror, each creepier than the last. About 5% of the lines were incredibly beautifully written, like Hemingway, clear and unforgettable. The storytelling was absorbing. Using only her voice and a few choice sound effects, she painted shadowy pictures of ghosts of spurned lovers, the living dead, and malevolent murderous spirits. Pixar’s best CGI demon will never be half as creepy as the one evoked by Rebecca as I sat in the dark listening to her. If she explained why the show was called Female Gothic at the beginning, I didn’t hear it because I was in the bathroom but I think it is called Female Gothic because the starting point of all the stories was a woman spurned, a woman ignored, a jealous woman – a wise man once told me that when you have a dream, you must realize that all of the characters in the dream in fact represent some portion of yourself. The dark forces evoked in these stories are no less than the dark side of ourselves. Again, don’t shoot the messenger. I am just here to tell you that the more you can understand yourself, especially the darkest parts of yourself, the better you have made the world.
We went straight to see Guy Masterson’s show The Half. The Half what theatre veterans call the 35 minutes before curtain of a show. Guy plays a 50-year-old alcoholic, whose wife has left him, who has a nervous breakdown during The Half as he contemplates his imminent return to the theatre performing Hamlet as a one-man show lasting four and half hours with no intermission. Four five-star reviews came in for it today, deservedly, for Guy’s virtuoso performance and for the evocative script. Hamlet is paralyzed by doubt, remember, looking to the theatre for respite and truth. Hamlet devoutly wishes for death but cannot muster the courage for suicide. The parallels haunt this piece. There is suffering. But the suffering has a ludicrousness, the character has a ridiculousness in his failure so much that I could not help but laugh. So the piece swings from utter pathos to slapstick comedy. Not for the faint of heart. The one-person sword fight is in itself highly entertaining, shortly after, though, the man is moved to tears with self-loathing. A difficult show, a challenging show. In some ways it seemed huge and Russian to me, looking at madness like The Idiot. Like all Masterson productions, though, it ended beautifully, perfectly. Somewhere in the hysteria and ego of this character, somewhere in his meaningless bloated eternal life of self-doubt, there is something real, a real connection. Basically, you have to see The Half if you get a chance, because its extremities will provoke great thought.
Next to A Soldier’s Song. This was great, and the Fringe is really the only place on earth I see stuff like this. A private in the Falklands tells his true story of war, accompanied by sounds of assassins’ bullets and mortar fire. I mean, really, if you ever wanted the opportunity to look at a guy who has really shot another guy dead at point blank range, this is it. The way he told his stories was haunting, sometimes funny, always honest.
He came to Edinburgh to tell this story because he knows that for the public, war is a story spun by politicians, but he wants us to know that war is in fact just young boys being ripped apart by metal. He wants a new script for the politician’s stories and somehow his time on the battlefield gives his request a certain poignancy.
This is what happens at the Fringe sometimes. There is a story, and then there is the fact that the person this really happened to is the person telling me. This is a different theatrical experience to just being absorbed by the narrative. What I think is the upside of this different Fringe-specific experience is that it i not only to entertain, but to teach as the voice of experience. I wanted more in Soldier’s Song of that polemic. I wanted more of what happened to him after the war. I wanted to learn more.
At least theoretically I wanted to learn more, actually by the time Soldier’s Song ended I was a little emotionally wiped out. That is Edinburgh, right, the human condition laid out in all its glory, including the suffering. After creepiness, pathos and war, I was chain smoking and eating nachos pretty pathetically.
Thank God though the next person was the Australian comedienne Sarah Kendall. She welcomed us to the Fringe and pointed out the incredible number of comedians we had to choose from, all with great reviews. In fact, she pointed out, if you believe all the reviews, there is an incredible number of geniuses congregating in Edinburgh this August. (“Sorry, we won’t be finding the cure for cancer this August, all the geniuses are doing stand-up in Scotland”). Sarah has this delivery that is so matter-of-fact that it actually takes a few seconds to realize how brilliant what she just said was. A lot of the show was about the kind of world she was bringing her daughter into, the devastating message of appearances in The Ugly Duckling. Her routine where she pitched a rap music video that involved her watching gay guys make out was so telling. The casual sexism of everything pointed out with a wry and equally casual delivery.
After Sarah Kendall we went to see a three comedian extra 11:00 pm show. Eddie Izzard, Michael Mittelmeier and Trevor Noah. Izzard had produced Michael’s and Trevor’s shows in his bid to bring world enlightenment through comedy. Trevor is half Swiss, half black South African. Michael is completely German. Trevor and Michael were thematically united by making fun of Americans. No matter, Izzard was right. There is a lot to learn. I did feel like I learned. Trevor’s best friend growing up was named Hitler. As a first name. Because in his mom’s culture in SA, when word got out that a guy named Hitler was bombing the French and the English, they were like, whoa, way to go. To them the French and the English were the oppressors. And then a generation later a kid would be named after his father or grandfather and they would be the next Hitler. I found it kind of difficult to deal with – there is such a culturally communicated knee-jerk reaction against Hitler. But I have learned from yoga that when something is hard to deal with, the best thing to do is pay a lot of attention to it. So I did, and I felt like I learned. I even learned from the German but was eventually allowed to relax when he started making fun of the British (instead of Americans) and it was hilarious. You have not lived until you have heard a German comedian call an Edinburgh crowd “a bunch of hobbits from the Shire”.
Izzard was in good form but somewhere around 12:30 my brain shut down.
The next day we started with Kemble’s Riot. John Kemble and his sister Mrs Sarah Siddons were the biggest celebrities of their day, and when they built a new theatre and tried to raise prices on tickets in London circa1809, the crowds in Covent Garden rioted for 66 nights until they backed down. This play used five actors and the audience to act out the riots. This is totally my kind of play. There were a million interesting things going on, the possiblity of which was created but left open by the script. The audience had a couple actors implanted who act as protest ringleaders. When in the play a security guard (an actor) tried to remove a ringleader (another actor), one of the audience (**not an actor) pulled him off the protester. Fantastic. The historical reminder of the power of the crowd to stop those in authority from doing things we don’t want them to do could not be more important. This show is great because it’s sort of Protest 101, Transgressive Behaviour Junior Course. We are so acculturated not to complain, to take it, to obey, to submit, to not make a fuss. These are no longer virtues, and this play helps us exercise our more virtuous protest muscles. In the world we live in now, failing to complain is the vice. Learning to complain is the necessity. Protest. Remember. Justice Is Possible. Kemble's Riot. Really good.
Next to an adorable and not really dark revival of the off-Broadway darling musical Putnam County Spelling Bee. A cast of eight kids spell their way right into our hearts. My friend, the one insulted by Phil Nichol, came into her own at that play. This was one of those plays that lets down the "fourth wall" and begins as soon as people walk in the theatre. The lead character latched on to Ellen as his mother. As she held his inhaler for him during the play she would shake it from time to time for him to make sure it had enough medicine. (Me, jealous: Ellen, it's a prop!"). Funny, sweet, clever – everything you want in a musical. I loved Olive Otrovsky, the lonely only child. This is a broadway show just going into general release and I will say this: American shows may seem unsophisticated and guileless next to their European counterparts but they also do something the European shows fail to do: leave you with an overwhelming sense of positivity, hope and love. European shows somehow always remind you that suicide has its own logic.
The last show of the day was, well, ok, it was Ted, the incompetent lawyer from Scrubs and the rest of his barbershop quartet. Yes, those four guys from Scrubs have a show. They promise the The first fifteen minutes were the weakest fifteen minutes of the Fringe, but then they sang Take On Me and there was something authentic in the nostalgia. I find myself in those moments bathed in memories. Take on Me, I probably watched the video for that 100 times. And the k-Tel greatest hit collections, advertised on television during my childhood cross-legged on the floor, were recreated with a specificity and acumen that was the perfect aide memoire.
The Blanks, for that is the name of the group, aspire to a Marx Brothers style of zaniness. I could see they had started to work it and were beginning to get there. The thing is, the Marx Brothers' routines had been worked out in hundreds of stage performances before they were captured on film. The Blanks have an admirable goal and should just keep performing together to get the time in to make their routines as immortal. I did think they had a couple of promising starts. And already impressive musicians. Please drop all references to Scrubs, you have to get past that, and also please put Underdog in your line-up.
Last show, Bullet Catch at the Traverse, written and performed by Rob Drummond. It's a magic show, a mind-reading show, the story of an on-stage defense of free will and the quietest (except for the shots) and loveliest show on the Fringe. I never looked at my watch. I felt great tidal waves of emotion. I wondered. Really too good.
Is this what it has come to? Have I really mastered the Fringe and pick no loser shows on which to vent my ire? It may be. It was one of my best Fringes.